Saturday, November 24, 2012

Our Man in Port-au-Prince

A new book has come out on Graham Greene, one of my favorite novelists, examining his time in Haiti and Central America.  These "adventures" became the seeds of his classic novels, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana and The Power and the Glory.  He brushed shoulders with "Papa Doc" Duvalier and other tyrants, but used his inimitable black humor to characterize them.  My father was working in Haiti and the Dominican Republic as a geologist during this time and was a Graham Greene fan himself, which is why this book has special resonance for me.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Flirting with the Fiscal Cliff

Flipping through the channels last night I saw three CEOs, including the head of UPS, on Bloomberg arguing that it is enough to close loopholes in the tax code to increase revenue and spare us a nose dive off the "fiscal cliff."  On National Geographic, I saw "Doomsday preppers" feverishly preparing stocks for the end of the world.  They come from various points of view, but the guy last night was bottling his own wine to use as barter in a post-apocalyptic society, while eating cans of dog food.  On CNN, the House and Senate leaders  came to the podium to announce they were ready to talk compromise, although Boehner and McConnell didn't appear to be giving much ground.

Watching the events of the last 15 years from a distant vantage point, it amazes me that the Republicans and their CEO friends feel like they are still fighting an ideological battle.  They won a long time ago.  The Clinton administration was essentially a repudiation of Democratic values in favor of Republican values, outflanking Republicans in Congress on everything from a crime bill to a balanced budget.  After 11 years as governor of Arkansas, Clinton knew how to play the game and he played it well.

Obama hasn't been quite as good.  He still let a few Democratic initiatives slide through, like the Affordable Health Care Act, which made Republicans cringe.  But, otherwise he pretty much played by the same game plan, even suggesting Social Security and Medicare be put on the table for domestic cuts, which Biden quickly reminded him was off limits.  To hear these CEOs bitch on Bloomberg, to raise taxes would be the end of the free market as we know it, sending all these "doomsday preppers" into their rat holes, while the rest of us battle it out in the post-apocalyptic city streets.

Each winter the business titans meet in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss strategy.  While this business summit is a bit too much like Ayn Rand's mountain summit in Atlas Shrugged, these business leaders are for the most part progressive and are looking for ways to spur the global market and better the lives of the lumpenproletariat, if for no other reason than to be able to buy their products.  This was essentially the strategy behind "globalization," which is rarely uttered these days.

Warren Buffett seems to think staving off the "fiscal cliff" is relatively easy business, but when one side refuses to back down from its Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge, it no longer appears so easy. The Democrats feel they won a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy in the polls, but Boehner argues that since the Republicans held onto the House the mandate remains theirs.  Mitch is kind of stuck in the middle, looking weaker than ever as Senate minority leader, but even he still strikes a bellicose tone on tax cuts.  Meanwhile, President Obama listens to labor and business in a series of meetings hoping to reach a compromise that he can present to Congress.  We can only hope all this is done before December 21.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

The official “pardoning” of White House turkeys is an interesting White House tradition that has captured the imagination of the public in recent years. It is often stated that President Lincoln’s clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks was the origin for the pardoning ceremony. Brooks noted,

About a year before, a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.

The Washington Post used both “pardon” and “reprieve” in a 1963 article in which President Kennedy said of the turkey, “Let’s keep him going.” The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped,

. . . this guy [has] been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rebecca Latimer Felton in her own words

I noticed that on this day in 1922 Rebecca Latimer Felton was the first woman inducted into Senate, even if it was only symbolic.  She was probably best known for her work, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth.  This online text also includes speeches she gave before the Georgia Legislature Women's clubs and other organizations.  She was quite a lady!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Westward Ho!

I saw a page at abebooks on box sets, and was hoping for a set of A.B. Guthrie novels.  His Western sequence started with The Big Sky in 1947, perhaps my favorite Western novel.  Of course it was years ago that I read it and it may not make as big an impression on me now as it did then, but here is a copy in google books.  This particular volume has an introduction by Wallace Stegner.

Guthrie followed up with The Way West (1949) and These Thousand Hills (1956).  He picked up the thread again in the 70s with three more novels which I haven't read.  You can find first editions of these novels for as little as five bucks at abebooks.  I guess they had large printings.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

History as Fiction

I was listening to Moonbase Newt on The Colbert Report the other night and he mentioned his new novel on Washington, Victory at Yorktown, completing a trilogy I never knew existed.  Stephen Colbert was having fun with Newt about the election, space stations and his passion for history novels.  I'm not sure whether Newt projects himself as George Washington, as Glenn Beck did in his universally panned biography of the founding father, or if he is attempting to educate young impressionable minds by appealing to their sense of adventure.  I did a quick search and noticed that William Forstchen  is also credited in these novels.  Seems Bill is a pro in this sort of genre, having had his sci-fi series, The Lost Regiment, optioned by Tom Cruise and M. Night Shyamalan for a movie.  I'm surprised Newt just didn't put Washington on the moon, but then I guess he wasn't quite willing to go that far.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reader's Corner

While we explore other group readings, I thought it might be nice to pull up a chair in Wilson's library (c. 1921) and discuss some of the other books of American history or culture we're reading.

Right now I'm reading Woodward's The Price of Politics.  After a condescending introduction that suggests Obama is self-centered and totally unprepared to be president, I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm going to stick with it for awhile.  Woodward does have a way of getting access to all the notes from all the meetings that occur behind closed doors.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bruce Almighty

Peter Ames Carlin is the latest to tackle the Boss.  This is a new biography that places Springsteen in the broader cultural history of America.  In recent years, Springsteen has moved beyond icon, often credited as the man who saved Rock 'n Roll, to troubadour in the style of Pete Seeger.  His homage to Seeger is a wonderful album.  He was honored at Kennedy Center in 2009 by Barack Obama, and figured in the news again during the relief efforts of Hurricane Sandy.  But, not everyone holds Bruce in such high regard,

How can anyone fault a man who gives us a version of Old Dan Tucker like this!  The clip is from the Sessions Band Live in Dublin.

An American Original

This biography of Washington Irving caught my eye.  It came out in 2008.  Judging from this short review by Walter Russell Mead, it covers a lot of Irving's political history.  Of course, Irving is known for his great literary contributions, which could make for a fun read.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Join in.  Help us pick our next book of American history to discuss.  We're a friendly bunch.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Should farm animals be counted in electoral vote?

To counter the growing strength of the Latino votes, Midwest state legislators are proposing a 3/5s rule for farm animals that would allow them to have a greater number of US representatives and more electoral votes in subsequent general elections.   They looked at the huge swathes of red in farm and ranch states and felt there must be some way to get a better accounting for this vast amount of real estate that votes Republican.

The beef and pork industry seems keen on the idea as they hope it will increase federal subsidies and allow them to have an even greater voice in politics.  These industries felt it unfair that corporations could be counted as persons but that farm animals are still regarded as non-human.

Animal rights activists have yet to weigh in on this, but there is some favorable response as they feel farm animals have long been overlooked in the struggle for equal rights, and hope that such legislation would allow them to press charges against those ranchers who treat them adversely.  Farm animals themselves have yet to be interviewed on the subject.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Happy Birthday Sesame Street!

The big winner of this election is Sesame Street, which is 43 years young today.  Here is the original episode from November 1969.  You really have to wonder about a political candidate going after Big Bird, and here is Big Bird greeting Sally on PBS's most famous address.  The show has had a magical run and has reached far beyond its narrow confines.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lincoln and Euclid

Listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin on Charlie Rose tonight.   It was fun as the two discussed who better for Obama to channel in these next four years.  Most of their thoughts swirled around LBJ, FDR, TR and Lincoln, with Rose plugging a new reprint of her book that ties in with movie.  He even featured a film clip in which Lincoln was weighing Euclid's thoughts on equality and how it might become part of his emancipation proclamation.  Goodwin said that Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible, not only capturing Lincoln's distinct walk but his high-pitched voice as well.  She also noted how faithful Spielberg was in recreating the Lincoln White House right down to first editions copies he was reading at the time.  Goodwin noted that Lincoln was a reader, thrilled over copies of Shakespeare and the King James Bible to the point he couldn't sleep.

On Lincoln's interest in Euclid, author David Van Haften noted,

I found countless references to Euclid and they all said about the same thing: Lincoln read Euclid, he mastered Euclid, and he took Euclid’s Elements with him while riding the judicial circuit. The only real substantive clue that there was more here than meets the eye was a rather loose statement that Lincoln read Euclid to find out how to “demonstrate.”

It's the math, stupid!

I like the title if nothing else.  Nate Silver was plugging his book on the Colbert Nation.  Here is a review from the LA Times.

And yet during the 2008 elections, it took mere months for Nate Silver to become one of the political world's most respected experts, the guy anyone who wanted to be taken seriously had to cite. With good reason: Unlike so many of the people who make their living predicting elections, Nate Silver can do math.

Silver, who got his start working with baseball statistics before eventually moving on to politics and founding his website (now part of the New York Times), acknowledges as much in his new book, "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't."

Surprised he didn't go with a baseball metaphor, but I guess he has a thing for Faulkner.

The Hangover

For Obama the biggest hangover is a split Congress.  Once again, the Democrats invested all the energy in key Senate races, seeing their control as vulnerable with 23 Democratic seats up for election.  They not only retained all these seats, but picked up two Republican seats, notable Ted Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts, with Elizabeth Warren exacting her revenge on the Republicans for refusing to consider her nomination for head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau back in 2011.  Now, she will be able to oversea finances directly in the Senate.  Unfortunately, the Democrats didn't do such a good job in the House, losing seats.  At least Allen West lost his seat in Florida, with teabaggers in general fairing badly in this election cycle.  It doesn't seem that the Tea Party caucus will be so strong this time around, although Michelle Bachmann will return as its fearless leader.  John Boehner actually sounded contrite in his comments after Obama's historic victory Tuesday night, but it remains to be seen whether there will be any movement in current lame duck Congress.

Still, you get the sense Republicans aren't accepting the results.  Karl Rove kicked up quite a tantrum on Fox News when his news station called the election before midnight.  Rove refused to accept the results streaming in from Ohio, considering Hamilton county still in play.  This led to leggy Megyn Kelly giving us a tour of the "decision room" at Fox.  Maybe the folks at Fox can pitch in and buy Karl Rove a touch screen like the one John King uses on CNN.  King's descriptions were quite effective as he showed that all those swathes of red in Ohio were accounted for.  The only outstanding votes were in blue counties along Lake Erie.  Hamilton county, in the south of the state, seemed split right down the middle like the rest of the country.

Donald Trump and Ted Nugent also had a hard time coming to terms with the results, venting their puerile thoughts on Twitter.  As the idea of "four more years" starts to sink in, you see some Republicans actually contemplating moving abroad.  I saw one friend on facebook considering a move to Belize, which makes more sense than Canada and Australia.  These countries are far more "socialized" than the United States and would only increase their angst.  But, I take these as idle threats.  I'm sure the Republicans will retrench in the months ahead and come up with new lines of attack on the President they refuse to recognize.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Feliz Dia de los Muertos!

This is a detail from a fresco completed by Diego Rivera in 1924.   We don't talk much about Mexican history in this forum, but this is one of the most revered days on the Mexican calendar.  Vaya con Dios!

The Old Crazy Horse

I have long been a fan of Neil Young and never cease to be amazed by the new material he continues to offer.  His autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, is on my wish list this Christmas.